Ian Paisley Jr, the suspended Democratic Unionist Party MP, has narrowly escaped a recall by-election. In the first case of his kind, a petition demanding his recall – set up after his suspension from the Commons for 30 days in July for accepting free holidays from the Sri Lankan government, which he failed to disclose when later lobbying on its behalf – was signed by 9.4 per cent of voters in his North Antrim constituency. The threshold required to trigger his sacking as an MP was 10 per cent.
Arguably, with the failure of the recall petition we’ve simply fast-forwarded to an inevitable conclusion: Ian Paisley remaining an MP. Even despite his record suspension, if he had faced a by-election, the overwhelming likelihood is that, defending a majority of 20,000 in a seat represented by a man called Ian Paisley since 1970, he would have won comfortably. It’s equally hard to imagine that he would have lost even in the unlikely event of his not being allowed to run as the DUP candidate. The government’s unionist lifebelt will increase back from nine MPs to ten sooner than could have been the case, a boon ahead of crunch Brexit votes. To coin a phrase, nothing has changed.
But that isn’t to say there are no lessons to be learned from the process. That Paisley of all people in all circumstances has escaped a by-election underlines the extent to which the Recall of MPs Act, passed in the dog days of the coalition in 2015, is unlikely to ever be used to actually recall an MP (as my colleague Stephen Bush wrote around the time the petition was launched). The number of 2017 Sinn Féin voters in North Antrim alone – 7,878 – was more than enough to pass the 7,543 threshold, and the party actively campaigned to encourage people to sign the petition. Add the votes of the DUP’s other opponents – the Ulster Unionists, Traditional Unionist Voice, Alliance and SDLP – and recalling Paisley should have been easy.
It’s true that by attacking Paisley so vociferously, Sinn Féin effectively turned the recall campaign into an orange-and-green fight. They and the moderate nationalist SDLP both registered to formally campaign and spend (relatively) big. That might have dissuaded unionists who did not like Paisley otherwise. But that’s no excuse either. There were more than enough nationalist voters – or indeed, Remainers – alone to trigger his recall. They failed badly. The fact that they could not be moved by their parties to turn out to give Ian Paisley a bloody nose over six whole weeks – or even submit a postal vote to that effect – demonstrates the difficulties any future recall campaign will have.
Opponents of Paisley are, predictably, getting their excuses in early. Sinn Féin has complained that the electoral authorities only opened three signing stations in a heavily rural constituency. It could also be argued that the law around the recall process is draconian and might have depressed turnout. It is illegal to give any indication of how many people have signed the petition until the six-week period is over (one tweet from a Sinn Féin assembly member, urging voters to sign because the result was on a “knife edge”, had to be deleted as a result). The result of the by-election that would have ensued was a foregone conclusion. But all of this is ultimately irrelevant. The fundamental question is this: if recall doesn’t work in the most polarised electorate in the UK, can it ever?